Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 June 2019

Lebanon's Hariri brings a long lost ally to the fold in a bid to secure the north

Feeling pressured by his opponents, the prime minister is looking to secure his flank

Prime Minister Saad Hariri shakes hands with former rival Ashraf Rifi as the two meet for a public reconciliation with former prime minister Fouad Siniora. Hand out image
Prime Minister Saad Hariri shakes hands with former rival Ashraf Rifi as the two meet for a public reconciliation with former prime minister Fouad Siniora. Hand out image

Prime Minister Saad Hariri on Tuesday met with his former ally turned vehement critic in what appears to be his latest move to unify Sunni politicians in the northern city of Tripoli amid increased pressure from pro-Damascus rivals.

Feeling the heat from an emboldened opposition after the May 2018 election, in which Mr Hariri’s Future Movement lost 10 seats, the prime minister is seeking to put up a unified front by bolstering and re-establishing old alliances. Meeting the former head of the Internal Security Forces Ashraf Rifi is the latest step in the plan.

Imad Salamey, associate professor of Political Science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut, told The National that he believes Mr Hariri is in a very precarious position. He says the prime minister’s opponents are pressuring key Future Movement figures. When coupled with the country’s poor economic performance and the fact that the party is no longer flush, so cannot maintain its networks of patronage, the prime minister is feeling backed into a corner.

“Hariri cannot give way to fragmentation among Sunni constituencies, he cannot afford competition, especially now [his Future MP] is up for re-election in a contested seat in the north,” he said of a by-election in the city of Tripoli next month.

“He needs allies and to regroup and needs not to have inter-Sunni competition for the leadership,” Mr Salamey added.

Posters of candidates for the upcoming Lebanese parliamentary elections hang on the walls of buildings in northern Lebanese city Tripoli's adjacent Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods on May 3, 2018. - Lebanon will be holding its first parliamentary elections since 2009 on May 6. (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)
Posters of candidates for the Lebanese parliamentary elections hang on the walls of buildings in Tripoli's Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen neighbourhoods. AFP

He said the prime minister is quietly on the way to mending fences – having already patched up with billionaire former prime minister and rival in Tripoli, Najib Mikati, by offering him a cabinet spot and securing a second seat for Violette Safadi – the wife of Tripoli’s other heavyweight Mohammad Safadi.

He has said several times in recent months that he wants good relations with Messrs Mikati and Safadi.

After re-establish or strengthening some old alliances, Mr Salamey said “renegades like Rifi” were the next step.

A major thorn in his side since he split off from the Future Movement in 2015, Mr Rifi has aggressively tried to build support in Tripoli – a key support base for the prime minister.

His mixed populist messages and fiery rallies appeared to be tapping into on-the-ground sentiment that the country’s second biggest city was being abandoned and that Sunnis were being marginalised. He comfortably won the Tripoli municipal election in 2016 against a unified list from Messrs Hariri, Safadi and Mikati.

Ahead of last year’s national election, Mr Rifi boasted that “Hariri is finished,” and that the country was “awaiting a new Hariri” as he set himself up as the prime minister’s successor.

Reports suggested that his anti-Hezbollah stance won him some quiet support among foreign watchers of Lebanon who share his concerns about the role the Shiite majority, Iran backed party play in the country.

But when the election came it wasn’t the culmination of Mr Rifi’s three-year challenge that he had expected.

The well-run electoral machines of the Future Movement and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati mopped up the votes, leaving Mr Rifi with no seats and his plan to replace Mr Hariri in tatters.

Lebanon's Prime Minister and candidate for the upcoming parliamentary elections Saad Hariri waves on stage during a campaign rally in the southern port city of Sidon on May 2, 2018. (Photo by Mahmoud ZAYYAT / AFP)
Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri waves on stage during a campaign rally ahead of the May 2018 election. AFP

Instead of taking another shot at a seat in Tripoli’s by-election next month, Mr Rifi is now backing the Future Movement’s Dima Jamali. The move puts Mr Hariri’s candidate into safer waters and eases concerns of a potentially bruising race.

“Rifi is in a difficult position given that in the northern city of Tripoli there is a fear that pro-Syrian Sunni’s will put forward a good campaign in the by-election,” said Mr Salameh. “So Rifi has either the choice to build an alliance with the pro-Syrians, lead an independent group or go back to the alliance with Hariri. I think he calculated his options and found this was the best scenario.”

It is unclear how long the relationship will last but Mr Hariri sounded fairly certain about Mr Rifi’s new place. “There may be political differences that distance us from each other but we are under the roof of one house,” he told the press.

With Messrs Mikati, Safadi and Rifi now on side, Mr Hariri’s flank is secured – no other potential challenger for the Sunni leadership can take him on and he is now free to focus on rivals from the pro-Damascus politicians and Hezbollah that are in front of him.

Hinting at his bigger strategy, Mr Hariri was fairly clear.

“We disagreed on politics and sometimes we got distracted by our disagreements,” he told the media. “But we must close ranks because the challenges are great.”

Updated: March 13, 2019 06:02 PM

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